Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview with Mary Giotinno, Associate Choreographer, "Billy Elliot the Musical"

Interview by Scott Dowd
Based on the 2000 Academy Award-nominated film of the same title, Billy Elliot the Musical is the story of a young boy from a depressed working-class mining town in the North of England. Set during the 1984 miners’ strike, a seminal moment in British history, the show follows Billy, the youngest child of a blue-collar family, as he discovers his extraordinary gift for ballet. While Billy’s father and brother take to the picket lines, Billy secretly begins to study the art of dance with the help of a hard-drinking, chain-smoking local dance teacher. But as Billy thrives, the lives around him wither – and his only escape may be the prestigious Royal Ballet School, a place no working-class boy has ever gone, or been allowed to go, before.
Although Billy Elliot is film director Stephen Daldry’s first musical, Daldry – along with choreographer Peter Darling, Sir Elton John (who provides the musical score for the stage adaptation), and the entire Tony Award-winning creative team – approached this production in the same way they did when creating the original film version more than a decade ago. Former Radio City Rockette Mary Giotinno serves as associate choreographer for the show and dance supervisor for the touring production. Working out of New York City, Mary has spent much of the past five years helping the young dancers who portray Billy achieve their dreams of becoming professional performers.

Mary Giottino. Photo by Doug Blemker.

SD:  When did you become affiliated with Billy Elliot the Musical
MG:  I started with the Broadway company and I was the tap teacher in the Billy Camp. There was a Billy Camp and a Michael Camp, and I gave maintenance tap classes to the boys in the show and helped train-up future boys coming into one of the three productions. 
SD:  How long did you do that?
MG:  I did it for about a year there and spent the last year and a half traveling with the second national tour. Then I set the version of the show that is coming to Louisville. I taught the dancers and the assistant choreographer, Kate Dunn. And now I’m in New York supervising all of the dance aspects of the show. 
SD:  Tell me about this version of the show. How is it different from the others?
MG:  To tell you the truth, they’re all about the same. The dances are the same in all four companies. There are differences from the London version to the American version, and this one has its own unique qualities. The version coming to Louisville is the same one we did in Chicago, on the second national tour and on Broadway. 
SD:  On your web site, there are a lot of pictures of you working with the kids. How many are in the show?

Electricity, Giuseppe Bausilio as Billy. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
MG:   It is quite the group. We have four boys playing the role of Billy. They each do two shows per week. We have two boys playing the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend. They do a sensational tap dance together in act one – it’s really a Broadway extravaganza. Then there are the nine ballet girls in Billy’s ballet class and one boy who plays Small Boy – that’s his name, Small Boy. So there are sixteen kids on tour.
SD:  This is a show about dance, so it must be difficult to find the right children for these roles. Not only do they have to be able to act, but they have to dance!
MG:  That’s the number-one requirement. A boy can’t get in the show as Billy without a dance background. Small Boy doesn’t have to dance, and Michael has his own set of criteria. But all of the other children come in with a background in dance. All of these children dance extensively in the show, with Billy having the most, of course. Nora Brennan, our children casting director, does an incredible job. She goes out two or three times a year specifically looking for Billys. 
SD:  How far does she expand the search? 
MG:  We’ve had Billys from all over the country and many countries around the world. Right now, one of our Billys is Canadian and the other three are American. That’s unusual. Last year we had two Australians and a Japanese child. It’s such a difficult role to cast, and Nora starts tracking these boys from when they’re about nine or ten years old. By the time they get the roles, they’re eleven or twelve and they’re in the show for about a year. 
SD:  Only a year?
MG:  That’s the average. J.P. has been in the show for over two years now. That’s incredible really.
SD:  Sure. If nothing else, they will age out of the role.
MG:  Exactly. Some boys do that really quickly. There are so many variables we live with in Billy; we never know when a boy will grow an inch overnight, or their voice just drops. It’s that whole puberty thing and, of course, we’re hiring boys who are that age.
SD:  What is life like on the road for these kids? 
MG:  The training they’ve gone through to get in continues in rehearsal. By the time any given boy reaches opening night, he may have spent two years in training. 
SD:  Sounds like a microcosm of a dancer’s life. You mentioned that the search process for Michael is a little different. How so?
MG:  Nine out ten Michaels come to us with zero dance background. We really love hiring unique, fun characters – kids you would never imagine breaking into a tap dance. Once they’re in the show – Billys and Michaels specifically – they have extensive one-to-one acting training every day. They have dialect coaching, because the boys are all speaking with a Geordie accent from the North of England. That takes weeks of hard work to learn; and most of these boys, especially those playing Billy, have never done anything but dance. It’s very rare we get a boy who has done a musical before or who has sung before. So here they are, never having spoken a single line of dialogue much less five hundred lines, in front of thousands of people every night!
SD:  Not to mention they are carrying the emotional weight of the show.
MG:  You know Billy carries the weight of the entire production. The show runs about two hours and fifty minutes, and Billy is on stage for two hours and forty minutes. There are a couple of short scenes in Act II when he’s off stage between his dream ballet, which has an extensive pas de deux with his older self, and the “eleven o’clock number,” Electricity
SD:  I imagine even two shows a week is a challenge.
MG:  We space them out in performance, but they’re not off. When they’re not on stage, they have massage and physiotherapy; there is core and cardio training; there is a rehearsal where they go through their entire show with notes from the resident director and choreographer; and they have a show where they stand by. It has happened that one boy will go out mid-show and the other boy goes on stage.
SD:  At least you have someone who is really prepped and ready.
MG:  Absolutely. The resident company and stage management do a great job of making sure each boy has enough down time and can still be ready in case of emergency. They are in the theatre four times a week, and when they’re not, they’re rehearsing.
SD:   And going to school?
MG:  Every day. Three tutors travel with the show and they make sure the children keep pace with the curriculum – whether it’s a home-school program, public school, private school – whatever is normative for that child, including all of the state testing, etc. 
SD:  The logistics of having children on the road is a huge challenge!
MG:  It really takes a village there and here in New York to make this happen. The people on the road with them do an amazing job every day making sure these children are well-cared for and having fun because, at the end of the day, they’re kids. If we’re in Minneapolis, they want to go to the Mall of America and we make that happen. In Washington, D.C., they all got to go to the White House and waved to president Obama, who they happened to see on the lawn. We look for an academic field trip in every city.
SD:  The Kentucky Center is just down the street from Louisville’s Museum Row. 
MG:  The kids would love that! 
SD:  This show is about the social pressures affecting boys who want to become dancers. It’s set in the 1980s. But have things changed in that regard?
MG:  I wish I could say it isn’t an issue any longer, but it is. But it’s better. There are so many shows on television now that expose Americans to dance – I’m really grateful for that. We’re seeing that there are a lot of guys who dance, and it’s okay if my son wants to pursue it. It’s much better than it was in 1984 when the story takes place. Billy faces the additional obstacle that he is in a miners’ town that is pretty utilitarian. They don’t have much appreciation for the arts – especially during a strike. 
SD:  There is a lot of subtext in the story that has to do with Margaret Thatcher and Parliament. Does that translate well for American audiences, many of whom weren’t even born when the Iron Lady was in Number 10 Downing Street?
MG:  We have banners outside the theatre explaining the context of the show and what is happening in Durham County in 1984. We hope people will read that, as it really establishes the play in their minds. We don’t expect everyone to understand what was happening in England at that time, but the show is written so well that audiences will get it. There is a big anti-Thatcher scene in the opening of Act II with a huge puppet of Margaret Thatcher. Just by the activity on stage, you understand how the characters feel about her. The show does a great job without hitting you over the head. But even if you don’t understand a word they’re saying or have no idea what the subtext is about, this show will hook you as soon as they start to dance. As soon as you meet Billy, you understand everything you need to know about this show, because it’s really all about him! 

You can see Billy Elliot the Musical in Whitney Hall June 26-July 1. Ticket prices start at $22.75 and are available at the box office, 502.584.7777 or kentuckycenter.org. For more information on this show and the season, go to BroadwayInLouisville.com. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

“Outrageous, But Shamelessly Fun,” Michael von Siebenburg Is a High Point of the Humana Festival

Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards

Written by Greg Kotis
Directed by Kip Fagan

Reviewed by Cristina Martin

Entire contents copyright © 2012 Cristina Martin. All rights reserved.

Ariana Venturi & Rufus Collins in Michael von Siebenburg Melts
Through the Floorboards, Humana Festival of New American
Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Alan Simons.

Let’s see…

It was the title that had me from the start, I must admit. I imagined something Faustian, something imposing and dark with Mephistophelian magic… And would he really do it (melt through the floorboards, that is). And if so, how would they pull it off?

I was definitely überrascht (surprised), happily so. The latest show to open as part of the 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre treats audiences to much lighter fare than I anticipated – silly, campy, hilariously horrifying at times, and yet sweetly touching in the end.

You might have heard that Michael von Siebenburg (Rufus Collins) is a vampire, but banish all notions of Twilight. The Austrian baron makes even Dracula look if not tame, then let’s say less like a famished serial killer. But ah, the (really old) Old World “charm” is still there in this urbanely pedantic, chauvinistic roué, who smarmily seduces the women procured for him in his signature creepy, hand-kissing way.

Before we meet Michael (or MAHy-köl, as his friends call him in their outRRRRageous German accents), we’re introduced to someone who actually seems to rise from the floorboards amidst all manner of clanging and mist: Michael’s longtime friend Otto (John Ahlin), with whom he fought at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Ahlin establishes the broad humor of the play, his solid presence and dogged hatred of “those coffee-drinking Turks” who pummeled his shins eliciting many of the show’s laughs.

While trying to secure Constantinople in the name of all of Christendom, Otto meets a gruesome end at the hand of the Infidel. Subsequently and not unrelatedly, Michael and the other men become vampires – not just the sort of vampires who’ll suck your blood, but the kind with a taste for human flesh. Short on gruel, they realize that eating their friends contributes miraculously to the smoothness of their complexions and their youthful vigor, and that continuing to do so will keep them alive – indefinitely. And their friends taste better, see, because they’ve been “tenderized” by Turkish maces, whereas the Turks have only been stabbed by the Westerners and are thus not nearly as tender. Add some paprika and some cumin, and you’ve got yourself eine echte Fleischspeise. Or something like that.

Totally outrageous, sure, but shamelessly fun. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Monty Python and the Holy Grail fans would feel right at home with the play’s humor much of the time. The term camp came to mind, which is defined in the 1976 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language as “…artifice, ostentation, etc., so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal”; the production pokes fun at epic and dramatic tropes and at itself, and we can’t help but be tickled, too.

If a lot of the play is purposely overblown and campy, Michael’s friend Sammy (Micah Stock) is übercampy. Also playing an Austrian vampire but one of the contemporary blasé variety, Stock’s intonation and exaggerated mannerisms are priceless. An uncannily good reader of people, Sammy chats up women to select just the right date for von Siebenburg; von Siebenburg, in turn, repays Sammy the following day with a package of fresh meat, fruit of the rendezvous.

Interestingly, only meat butchered in the right frame of mind (the meat’s, that is) tastes good. Jane (Ariana Venturi), Michael’s first conquest of the play, is ditzy and gullible, unsuspecting to the end; while April (Laura Heisler), his second, puts up a fight and dies angry. Sammy claims he tastes the anger in her meat. In fact, as women have become savvier and more resistant to von Siebenburg’s spiel over time, his life of seduction has become increasingly difficult. His thoughts turn to the good old days and to the one true love he has known in his life – his wife, Maria, played with angelic radiance by Caralyn Kozlowski.

Amidst spirit visitations and encounters with the cops (Venturi and Heisler each ably doing double duty) and with his nosy landlady, Mrs. Rosemary (the pitch-perfect Rita Gardner), Michael has an epiphany. It says a lot about both Kotis’s writing and Collins’ acting that in spite of everything that has gone before, we actually feel for the guy in the end.

Scenic Designer Michael B. Raiford has created an extraordinary set that evokes von Siebenburg’s shabby modern day walk-up, the walls of Constantinople, and the courtyard outside a city office building all at once, without any major scenery changes. Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting draws our attention to exactly the right place at the right time and always creates the appropriate mood. Those bothered by strobe lights should be forewarned, however, that they’re used briefly toward the beginning of the play.

The actors’ exaggerated German accents slipped ever so slightly at times on opening night, and the campy posturing seemed to drag on just a minute or so too long in certain scenes. All in all, however, the production benefits from strong performances in what really is quite an entertaining show.

Mum’s the word in terms of whether you’ll actually see any melting through the floorboards, but I will say that at play’s end, Michael prepares to leave behind life as he’s known it. “Let’s see” are his last words as he looks forward with anticipation to what the next chapter of his existence will bring. Coincidentally, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of Faust fame said, “Mehr Licht (More light)” on his deathbed, which might have meant something similar (or then again, it might have just meant that he wanted the shades opened a tad). Also, one of Goethe’s most famous lines from Faust is “Das ewig weibliche zieht uns hinan” – the eternally feminine (female) draws us onward, a concept that is true for Michael in more ways than one. So maybe Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards isn’t so far removed from Faust after all.

Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards

March 22 - April 15, 2012

Part of the 36th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays

Actors Theatre of Louisville
Pamela Brown Auditorium
316 West Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 584-1205

Simple Staging in "Death Tax" Helps the Play “Pack A Powerful Punch”

Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Judith Roberts in Death Tax,
part of the 36 Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 2012. Photo, Alan Simons.
Death Tax

Written by Lucas Hnath.
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.

A review by Kate Barry

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.

This season I have seen several Actors Theatre productions, during both the Humana Festival of New American Plays and the regular season. While some plays honed in on the actors’ performances (How we Got On and Tom Sawyer), other productions provided lavish sets and spectacle of sorts (In the Next Room, Hour of Feeling). But tonight, I saw a play that was simple, sparse and without any type of frills, called Death Tax, a Faustian examination of families and trust. With this production, Actors Theatre has proven that they don’t always need spectacle to pack a powerful punch.

This play is a series of five scenes woven together by an ill elderly woman named Maxine played with conviction by Judith Roberts. Motivated by resentment, fear and anger toward her daughter, Maxine is convinced she is being murdered. A prisoner of her hospital bed, Roberts plays Maxine as an immovable force whose stubborn ferocity and fear of dying causes an intricate chain of events involving her nurse, Tina, played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Although Maxine appears only in the first and last scenes, her destructive influence over the other characters makes her villainous performance one you just can’t help but love.

Eventually, Tina becomes entangled in Maxine’s deceit. Affected by her relationship with her boss (Paul Niebanck) and her son in Haiti, Tina chooses to enter in a monetary agreement with Maxine with the understanding and promise of medical care. Bernstine introduces each scene and carries the audience through every interaction on stage. Her performance is quietly desperate, even while the character is forcefully determined to reunite with her long lost son. But Bernstine isn’t the only person Maxine has in her web of delusion. Danielle Skraastad plays Maxine’s hot tempered and unjustly treated daughter, who has been emotionally neglected since childhood. Skraastad’s performance contains rage and hot tempered fire as she tries to hold onto not only her share of any inheritance but also her mother’s love. Niebanck steps in as Tina’s boss as well as Maxine’s grandson in the fifth and final scene. Although he has some comedic moments as Tina’s superior and lover, by contrast, as her grandson, he provides a strong fist as he denies Maxine any type of treatment.

In conclusion, the staging of the play was striking in how space and movement function together. There is very little movement from actors within each scene. As there are only two actors, at most, at any given moment, characters are firmly planted on opposite corners of the stage, battling each other, one might even say pinning each other down, with words. This type of fascinating blocking added so much tension and stress within each scene that I found myself biting my nails with great anticipation of what was going to happen next.

Death Tax

March 20-April 1, 2012

Part of the 36th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays

Actors Theatre of Louisville
Bingham Theater
Third & Main Streets
Louisville, KY 40202

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why The Humana Festival at Actors Theatre Is “Where You Want To Be”

A Conversation with Greg Kotis and Kip Fagan

By Kathi E.B. Ellis.

Greg Kotis. Photo courtesy of Actors Theatre.
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved

Both Greg Kotis and Kip Fagan have previous experience with The Humana Festival of New American Plays.  Kotis’s play An Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship Presented As Some Kind of Cop Show Parody was one of the Ten-Minute Plays in 2010, and the previous year he was a contributing playwright for the Apprentice anthology show BRINK! Kip directed the 2008 entry Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom.  It is this year’s Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards that brings these two theatre artists together. Actors Theatre of Louisville sent Kotis’s script to Fagan who, after he read the first scene, says, “My mouth was hanging open…” “I thought, ‘Oh no, that’s not right,'” citing the comedic elements that lead to a darker exploration in the script, an opportunity to bring his absurdist directorial voice to the work of a writer he’s followed since coming across an early Kotis short Pretzel, Pretzel.

What is it that brings them back to the Humana Festival and Actors Theatre of Louisville? They both cite the obvious prestige of an internationally-renowned festival dedicated to new plays now in its 36th year.  “It is one of the premiere venues for launching new work”, says Kotis. It’s “where you want to be…want to go,” adds Fagan, as they agree that what makes Humana unique is the commitment to give new works full production resources while still maintaining a development aesthetic towards the script that is playwright-centric. As an added bonus, they both like Louisville itself.

Kip Fagan. Photo by Walter McBride.
Enlarging on the theme of development and production, Kotis speaks to the process of discovery in the rehearsal room, and having enough time to allow the director and actors to click with the script, that he’s learned to be patient and not "fix" a line immediately if he doesn’t hear what he thought he should hear. “Actors need to own what they have,” he says, noting also that there is a practical consideration to rewrites – “…how much the company can bear.” Fagan speaks to the fun that the company has had during rehearsal, that they’re “a good, funny, inventive” company of actors which has made lots of small comedic discoveries over the past few weeks.

Both Kotis and Fagan hone in on the end of the play. Kotis says that as a playwright he always hopes to be “…focused enough to catch the discoveries when they come,” giving as an example that he’s happy with what the title character decides to do at the end of the play – something that wasn’t entirely clear to him until later in the rehearsal process. Fagan adds that it’s in the last week he’s focused in on the “universality of what he (Michael von Siebenburg) is going through… (that) he has something to grapple with in a little less than two hours”.

Asked about their relationship with the dramaturg in producing a new play, Kotis says that after the solitary process of writing, it’s “…good to have someone to turn to…a confidante whose job is the text.” Fagan agrees that it’s good to have someone in the rehearsal room whose “purpose is clarity of storytelling.”  Specifically for this process he adds that the dramaturg with whom they’re working, Zach Chotzen-Freund, is based in New York and has joined the rehearsals from time to time, thus bringing in a fresh and valuable perspective each time he’s been in the room.  From a production perspective, Fagan is pleased to be in the Pamela Brown Auditorium which, he feels, lends itself to fantastic ghost stories. He couldn’t imagine Kotis’s play done in a small performance space. “It’s essential it’s in the Pamela Brown because of its epic nature,” he says, while Kotis speaks to a major design element he had not envisioned as the writer: actually seeing the walls of 1453 Constantinople in the distance, something that is clearly only possible in this venue and not in either of the other two ATL theatres.

A question about the title, Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards, elicits a recounting of a trip to Romania that Kotis made in 1995 – and an aside that many projects came from his experiences there. Kotis is animated as he describes Balkan Ghosts, a book he read prior to traveling to Eastern Europe that prepared him for the history of so many ethnic groups living in such close proximity, and so unhappily, for so many centuries. His time in Transylvania, right next to the Balkans, during the wars of the 1990s brought this history into sharp focus for Kotis together, of course, with the vampire traditions of this region. The title character’s name is a nod to the complexity of these historic tensions. He says that he tried other titles, but this is the one that felt right, and that titles are frequently one of the first things that come to him as he begins a new work.

New work is what shapes Fagan’s directorial career, a process he has come to love. He has directed already-published plays and plays by dead authors, but says he gets “anxious without a playwright beside me.”  If offered two plays, the odds are more than even he would take the new play, the caveat being that he and the playwright click – there has to be chemistry between the two. For Fagan, his role in bringing a new play to opening night is in “shepherding a play to be the best that it can be.”

On Friday, March 23, 2012, Kotis and Fagan have one preview performance behind them and are preparing for an afternoon rehearsal before a second preview that evening, and the premiere the following day. They agree they learned a lot from last night’s audience and are cautiously pleased that the audience stayed with them throughout the performance. This afternoon’s rehearsal will be about making adjustments learned from last night’s experience. Fagan notes the challenge of a festival environment is the truncated preview period and thus the abbreviated time in which to make the adjustments that new plays frequently require once they’re in front of audiences. However, both men agree on the positive experience they’ve had in the past few weeks, Kotis appreciating “everyone trying to solve problems from different directions (with) time allowed to fix things.” For Fagan it’s everyone “working together for a common goal. (It’s) genuine hard work.”

Caralyn Kozlowski & Micah Stock in Michael von Siebenburg Melts
Through the Floorboards, Part of the 36th Humana Festival of New
American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Alan Simons.

Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards runs through April 15 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium, Actors Theatre of Louisville, www.actorstheatre.org. 
Greg Kotis (playwright)  is the author of Yeast Nation (Book/Lyrics), The Truth About Santa, Pig Farm, Eat the Taste, Urinetown (Book/Lyrics, for which he won an Obie and two Tony® Awards) and Jobey and Katherine. Kotis’ work has been produced and developed in many theatres, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, American Conservatory Theatre, American Theater Company, Henry Miller’s Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York Stage and Film, Perseverance Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, Soho Rep, South Coast Repertory and The Old Globe, among others. Kotis is a member of the Neo- Futurists, the Cardiff Giant Theater Company, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and the Dramatists Guild. Kotis grew up in Wellfleet, MA, and now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ayun Halliday; his daughter, India; and his son, Milo.

Kip Fagan (Director)  At Actors: Jennifer Haley’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. Regional Theatre: Sam Hunter’s A Permanent Image (Boise Contemporary Theater), Jordan Harrison’s Futura (Portland Center Stage), Tommy Smith and Gabriel Kahane’s musical Caravan Man (Williamstown Theater Festival) and Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Galler y(Empty Space Theatre). NYC: Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion, Heidi Schreck’s There Are No More Big Secrets and Sheila Callaghan’s That Pretty Pretty; or: The Rape Play (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater); Sheila Callaghan’s Roadkill Confidential and Rachel Hoeffel’s Quail (Clubbed Thumb); Zayd Dohrn’s Reborning and Cory Hinkle’s Cipher (Summer Play Festival); Sheila Callaghan’s Recess and Christopher Durang’s Not a Creature Was Stirring (The Flea Theater); Sam Hunter’s Jack’s Precious Moment (P73); and Greg Keller’s The Young Left(Cherry Lane Theatre). He was a 2003-2004 National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group directing fellow and the 2007 Bill Foeller directing fellow at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

(Bios provided by Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Friday, March 23, 2012

When Kentucky was the West

Kentucky Rising:  Democracy, Slavery, and Culture from the Early Republic to the Civil War
by James A. Ramage and Andrea S. Watkins
Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky and The Kentucky Historical Society
445 pp. $40

Review by Katherine Dalton

Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.

This wide-ranging survey of Kentucky's history through 1865 has two advantages for the reader.  The book is organized by topic, and it covers a period of our history when Kentucky was a leader in education, politics and valor. 

It opens with the story of Henry Clay—from his not-so-humble beginnings in Virginia, to his national prominence, his “American system” and his efforts to keep the Union together while maintaining the States' legal rights to govern themselves on matters such as slavery. 

Clay was both loved as “Valiant Hal” and hated as “the Judas of the West” (Kentucky was America's early western frontier), and he was no Puritan and no fool.  Ramage and Watkins tell that when a New England woman charitably exclaimed to Clay's wife, Lucretia, “Isn't it a pity that your husband gambles so much!” Lucretia calmly answered, “Oh, I don't know.  He usually wins.”

Even in politics, even though Clay was accused of a “corrupt bargain” with John Quincy Adams and never won the Presidency he craved, that was true. 

When Clay died in 1850, his national eminence was so great that he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington (the first person to do so), and then in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell tolled for him.

The authors cover many topics, moving quickly but with detail:  Kentucky artists of the period, journalism, medicine, steamboats, the Mexican War and the War of 1812, whose centennial we are largely ignoring this year.  That's a shame, because Kentuckians played a great part in that war. Of the nearly 1900 Americans killed in it, 1200 were from Kentucky, and its heroes included Col. Richard M. Johnson of Fayette County (later Vice President under Martin Van Buren) and Col. George Croghan, who was born at Locust Grove in Louisville and was the nephew of William and George Rogers Clark. 

Here's another fact every Kentuckian should know:  with the exception of Senator John Pope--who wanted to declare war on  France as well as England--all of Kentucky's U.S. Senators and Representatives supported the 1812 war declaration, and then all of them except Pope and Clay enlisted.  Imagine that today.

In eight of the ten presidential elections right before 1860, a Kentuckian was a candidate for either President or Vice President.  (Often it was Henry Clay.) 

Under the Kentucky constitution of 1799, voting was conducted over three days, which gave voters in certain counties the chance to vote “early and often,” as the old joke goes.  In the 1832 election, for example, Oldham County tallied the votes of 163 percent of its voters. (Voting was not limited to one day till 1850.)

Kentucky Rising also devotes several chapters to slavery and to Kentucky's complicated history during the Civil War.  A state which was strongly pro-Union and which sent three-quarters of its soldiers into the Union Army, Kentucky was nevertheless a Southern State with many Southern sympathizers, and during the war it was ruled as occupied military territory and treated as enemy ground. 

My South Carolina friends like to say that Kentucky joined the Confederacy after 1865, but the tide of public opinion turned well before the war was over.  This was largely due to the interference in elections, loyalty oaths and retaliatory executions ordered by Union military commanders like Boyle and Burbridge, but Lincoln's own acts to suspend habeas corpus, silence the critical press even in the North and declare martial law were also hated.  Not to mention the Emancipation Proclamation. 

The authors of Kentucky Rising are nationalistic and unsympathetic to the injustice of slavery, but history is what it is, and the story of the “pacification” of an unseceded Kentucky is a painful one.  Ramage and Watkins give a useful retelling of it.  

The Temperamentals Is a "Deeply Personal" Depiction of History from Pandora

Zachary Burrell, Scott Goodman, Christopher Gilbert,
Obadiah Ewing-Roush & Ted Lesley in The Temperamentals.
Photo courtesy of Pandora Productions.

The Temperamentals

Written by Jon Marans
Directed by Michael Drury

Reviewed by Keith Waits.

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

Art has an ability to connect us to the past, and theatre can be particularly adept at accomplishing this. The Temperamentals tells the story of homosexual men taking the first steps to open up their lives, lay claim to an identity, and establish a civil rights movement years before terms such as “civil rights,” “gay” or to be “out” had entered the vernacular. These events occurred in the early 1950s, nearly two decades before the Stonewall riots in 1969 officially began the modern gay rights movement.
Director-Producer Michael Drury provides a useful program insert detailing some of the history and including a timeline stretching from 1909 to today. It provides valuable context, but the play itself does a splendid job of connecting to the audience, and the relevance of the story to the gay rights issues being aggressively debated in public today is clear to anyone who’s paying attention. The depiction of Harry Hay, who founded the Los Angeles-based group and labeled it the Mattachine Society, along with Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Chuck Rowland & Bob Hull, as men in grey business suits and conservative haircuts (the period details are accurate but presented in an unfussy, matter-of-fact fashion) underscores the boldness of taking such action in the repressive social atmosphere of the Eisenhower era. This was a courageous fight that seems largely forgotten.
Not unexpectedly, the first act is burdened slightly by the expository demands of character introductions and establishing context required by the docudrama format. But the playwright interjects just enough humor and provides the inherent drama of the courtroom. This was a time when a man could be arrested for the suspicion of “lewd conduct” with another man in public, and the script focuses on such a trial as the intermission approaches. Later, we witness the sad dissolution of the original group as it is replaced by others who, the play strongly suggests, lacked Hay’s bold resolve.
The verbosity of the text threatens to drown the audience in detail, and the script is nothing if not thorough; yet the seriousness of purpose is balanced by the expert playing of the five-member ensemble. Zachary Burrell, Obadiah Ewing-Roush, Christopher Gilbert and Scott Goodman all do solid work, essaying the primary characters with great feeling. But the heart of the piece is in the performance of Ted Lesley as Harry Hay. Mr. Lesley is one of the smartest actors in town, and his work here is certainly sharp and well-calculated. But he also reaches an emotional depth, particularly in the play’s final moments, that would qualify this as among his finest work. It is nothing less than a triumph.
The design work carries the customary Pandora polish, with efforts from Theresa Began (Lighting), Donna Lawrence-Downs (Costumes) and Laura Ellis (Sound) that combine to create the 1950s evocatively, and without clichés.
The Temperamentals is well-researched and forceful in its depiction of an important but little-known slice of American history. But its final impact comes from how successfully it establishes a relationship between the audience and the individual characters onstage. For these men, and for all that followed, the fight was deeply personal, and so ultimately is this play.
The Temperamentals

March 22- April 11, 2011

Pandora Productions
At The MeX
The Kentucky Center
517 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Echoes of the Past Resonate in Bette Levy's Work at the Carnagie Center

Tools of the Trade: Fiber Art by Bette Levy
Review by Mary Margaret Sparks
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Mary Margaret Sparks. All rights reserved.
When I heard that Bette Levy’s new exhibition at the Carnegie Center in New Albany included doilies and quilts, two of my favorite things, I had to see it for myself.  Throughout my years in Louisville I have heard Bette Levy’s name mentioned, but this was my first time viewing an exhibit devoted to her work. She is a founding member of LAFTA (Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists), director of the Patio Gallery at the Jewish Community Center, and a member of PYRO Gallery. 
Tools of the Trade I, 2011, Rusted cloth.
Photography by Geoffrey Carr.
Approaching the Carnegie Center for the opening reception, I was greeted by an array of doilies. Vintage doilies were wrapped around trees, signs, even the lamppost. This "doily bombing" was done by Levy and other local artists and sets the stage for the themes of the exhibition.  
The majority of the work features sculptures of old tools with crochets. There are also a few quilted wall hangings, installations and canvases.  I found the canvas pieces very interesting in their simplicity. The artist used varying degrees of rust on old tools to create outlines of those tools on the canvases.  The pieces resembled cyanotypes but with a robust orange color in place of the bright blue.  Being an artist who works with found objects, I experienced a feeling of “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that!” when seeing how Levy found meaning in common objects. 
By using traditional materials and methods such as old tools, crochets and handkerchiefs, Levy reflects on her personal life and family origins.  The natural and vintage goods used are beautifully composed into delicate and rustic sculptures. In most of the work, Levy combines old farming tools such as scythes, shears, and pulleys with crocheted pieces. This contrast of objects and ideas reflects Levy’s family origins. Talking with the artist I learned that historically, Jewish people couldn’t farm because they were not permitted to own land. Instead, they went into the clothing and textile business. Thus history directly informs the artist’s decision-making process. 
Spring Doily, 2011, Truck spring, crocheted nylon cord and Paverpol.
Photography by Geoffrey Carr.
Levy uses linens and cords in her crocheted pieces. These textile elements transform a delicate crochet pattern into a sturdy rope-like structure, and the altering of materials adds another dimension to the sculptures.  The work also addresses gender roles with the juxtaposition of a traditional masculine tool and an activity historically perceived as feminine.  At first it seems that the two are incompatible, but in fact they are complementary. As Levy mentions in her artist statement, “Both forms of production require serious work ethic, planning and goal setting, repetitive hand movements and dependence on past knowledge and traditions.”
Both the farming tools and the crochets reflect on the past and cause viewers to ponder their own traditions and memories. Although Levy’s choice of materials was different than my own – my grandfather was a farmer and my grandmother a crochet artist – the pieces are universal enough for everyone to feel a connection with them.  These sculptures are beautifully crafted with strict attention to detail. Even the nails on the wall were specifically chosen when hanging the work. 
Pitchfork, 2011, Pitchfork, synthetic cord,
Paverpol and crochet.
Photography by Geoffrey Carr.
One installation, titled Genealogy, was particularly compelling. It consisted of vintage handkerchiefs embroidered with the names of Levy’s female relatives from both of her parents.  I learned from the artist that each handkerchief was distinct in design and represented a woman in the family’s origins. Some handkerchiefs had “unknown” or the same name listed twice.  In Jewish culture, a child can be named after a deceased relative only. On handkerchiefs where the names are listed twice, a child passed away and the child born later was given the same name. This delicate yet striking installation is one of the more personal pieces in the exhibition. It’s a way for viewers to gain insight into the artist while also contemplating their own family origins. 
I felt something of a personal connection with A Life and Times. The piece features envelopes from letters Levy wrote her parents over a ten-year period. It was fascinating that the letters had all been saved but also how the piece, again, represented relationships and history. The amount of letters written suggests a close relationship between the artist and her parents. They are illustrated and include beautifully calligraphy. This aesthetic beauty complements the beauty of the family relationship and again causes the viewers to ponder about their own family relationships. 
A Life and Times, 2011.
Photograph by Mary Margaret Sparks.
This exhibition is worth a trip to New Albany. The sculptures are not just beautiful but also multi-dimensional, complex pieces that will challenge the way one views gender roles, tradition, and family.  Tools of the Trade: Fiber Art by Bette Levy will be on display through April 28.  The Carnegie Center for Art and History has free admission and is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5:30p.m. 
Tools of the Trade: Fiber Art by Bette Levy
Carnegie Center for Art and History
201 East Spring Street, New Albany, IN 47150